To begin, I need to make it clear that I am not one of those people who thinks that Christianity (or, for that matter, religious views in general) are constantly under attack by modern academic culture as a whole. It is often thought that the majority of college professors are a slew of arrogant men and women who will take any chance they can to attack religious views, but I have not found that to be the case. In fact, I’m actually quite happy as a Christian at the university I am attending because, for the most part, religious people are generally left alone and not made to feel bad for what they believe. And that doesn’t just go for Christianity either: there is actually a prayer room on the campus for the Muslim students as well as groups for both Catholic and Protestant believers. So when all is said and done, the general culture of my university is quite accepting of religions and, to be honest, commendable in the way they treat them.
That being said, there are sometimes instances that do actually cause me to feel a little defensive. The other day in one of my classes, the class got around to talking about the decline of Christian church attendance and the rise of people who are reporting that they don’t believe in anything, and the professor asked the question: “Is this an effect of anything, or are people just getting smarter?” The obvious assumption there: religious people are kind of dumb. Again, at my university, this is a pretty isolated case; however, as someone who prizes both my education and my faith, I was somewhat taken aback by the question. Also, it was one of those moments where someone says something that is kind of insulting to you, but in the moment you are made so uncomfortable that you aren’t really sure how to reply. However, looking back on it now gives me a chance to really think about some of the reasons a professor would make a comment like that and some of the reasons it can be so offensive.
So first the reasons for a comment like that. The first thing to think about is the majority of the population. While it is true that the number of people who report being affiliated with a religion has gone down significantly, the majority religion is still Christianity (Pew Forum). What this means is actually pretty simple: you can always make fun of a majority. In other words, it is completely socially unacceptable to make fun of any kind of minority because they are not the people who are generally in places of power. This is the reason that not many people take so-called “racial oppression” against white people very seriously (Blake). White people have always been the majority in this country, so they also hold most of the power. Thus, making racial comments or slurs about them is seen as more acceptable than if someone made comments like that about a Hispanic person. Racial slurs are, of course, bad no matter who they are directed at, but that does not mean we don’t have this double standard. The same thing goes for religious groups. With Christianity as the majority religion, that instantly makes it alright for Christians to be the religious group that people make fun of.
So that’s an explanation from a social point of view, but it is also important to find real statistics. As said earlier, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has found that the number of people who are reporting being unaffiliated with a religion (or at least reporting “nothing in particular” as their religious views) has increased fairly significantly (6). But it is also important to compare that with education. The common and widely accepted view is that religious people are less likely to be highly educated and that more educated people are more likely to reject religion. Thus, the two work in something of an inverse relationship. Of course, this still requires some proof. A poll taken in 2003 shows that out of people who have a postgraduate degree, around 88% believe in some kind of supreme spiritual being. Whether or not that is the God of the Christian faith is a different question, but they do believe in some kind of supernatural being. On the opposite end of the spectrum, out of people with a high school degree or less, 97% are likely to believe in a spiritual being Also, 53% of people with a postgraduate degree reported that religion was very important to their lives whereas 65% of people with a high school diploma or less said that it was important (Gallup). So case closed, end of story, religious people are stupid. Right?
Well, no. As usual when talking about groups of people, things are much more complex. The poll also looked at membership of a church and church attendance. The postgraduate degree holders were more likely to be a part of a church than people with a highs school diploma (70% compared to 64%) and both groups were just as likely as each other to have been in a church service in the last seven days since the poll was taken. But that’s not everything either. The poll also asked about people’s trust in their clergy and in organized religion in general. Of the high school or less group, 52% had a great deal of trust in organized religion, but only 43% of those people had a high degree of trust in the clergy. In the opposite group, 34% of the people with a postgraduate degree had a lot of trust in organized religion, but 63% of these people had a high degree of trust in their clergy (Gallup).
So what does all of this mean? The writer for the Gallup poll summed it all up very nicely:
“To some degree, those with a lower level of education are more likely to ‘talk the talk’ when it comes to religion — that is, they’re more likely to say they believe in God, place religion prominently in their lives, and recognize religion’s importance in the world. But those with a higher level of education are as likely as those with less education to ‘walk the walk’ — by belonging to a congregation and attending services regularly” (Winseman).
The important part with any religion is not that people talk about it, but that people live what they are talking about. According to the poll, people who are highly educated are actually just as likely to be religious as their less educated counterparts.
So if it’s the case that actual statistics show the professor to be somewhat misled, the question of why this was offensive still remains. Since being offended is a subjective feeling anyway, this cannot be analyzed through statistics. I think the reason it is so offensive is that if people genuinely believe in their religion, then it necessarily becomes part of their identity: a part of who they are at the very center of their being. So when a person makes a comment against that belief, it gets interpreted as an attack on the actual identity of the person. In other words, to say something with the assumption that religious people aren’t very intelligent insults a person at the most basic level of who they are. If actual tolerance of everyone, by everyone, for everyone is something we are striving for as a society, then attacking anyone with any creed at the level of their identity– for who they are– should not be acceptable.
Finally, a small anecdote: last Sunday while I was sitting in my pew in church thinking about the people sitting around me and about the comment the professor made, an interesting thought came to me. My church, the group of people I see every weekend, is a small cross section of a much larger society: we have farmers and scientists; PhD’s and people who barely graduated high school; and we have people from a few different countries and varying walks of life. And yet all of them have come together to peacefully worship and think about their faith. So as far as religion, it isn’t about education. The Christian faith is summed up in two phrases: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22: 37, 39). That’s what matters: love, acceptance, and faith. I have found these things to be real in churches, and I have only seen the slimmest shadow of them elsewhere. So are faithful people less intelligent? It doesn’t matter. The statistics say the whole question is more complex than a yes or no answer, and the Christian faith says that no matter who we are or what our education is or what our background is, we are all “one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). So it isn’t that stupid people are religious and that smart people aren’t, and it isn’t that there is really a difference in the faith of highly educated people and people with a lower level of education. Instead, we all meet together regardless of who we are, and we set aside our differences to worship together. While intelligence and education are important to me, what also matters to me is that the Christian faith is the great equalizer of everyone who comes to worship.
Blake, John. “Are Whites Racially Oppressed?” CNN. Cable News Network, 04 Mar. 2011. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. “Summary of Key Findings.” Pewforum.org. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2007. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.
Winseman, Albert. “Does More Educated Really = Less Religious?” Gallup.com. Gallup, 4 Feb. 2003. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.